Lately, I’ve been looking over some of the writing I did at Rockvale Writers’ Colony during the summer. As I’m doing so, I’ve discovered that some of the poems I created were more for myself than for publication. This is as it should be, I suppose. When one goes on a retreat for creative purposes, usually there’s a project in mind (as there was this time), but also, the getaway serves as a kind of “reset” switch for the creative brain. One such “just for me” poem came from the experience of wading Flat Creek:
Flat Creek at Dusk
All day, cicadas have echoed each other, but now their calls grow soft as the warren-drawn rabbit: brown omen of evening. Otters have stopped their playing, the small black fish have gone, limestone bed rocks settle their quarrels as clear and shallow water darkens.
Creek, I have felt your cool across my hike-tired toes, pressed your slick moss with aching soles, and wondered how many have trod your stony, whispering trail before me — another pilgrim feeling Tennessee beneath bare flesh smoothed by water.
It is likely I will never submit this piece to a journal or contest. I will probably refrain from including it in a packet of poems to an editor or publisher. This poem was a visceral response to a single and solitary experience, and it is precisely the kind of personal writing I referred to above. It isn’t intended for a large audience, but rather, it allowed me to be more present in the moment I encountered. Writers’ retreats often have this effect: They center the author, providing balance through seclusion. I am thankful for the time I spent at Rockvale Writers’ Colony, and one day, I may return. For now, the returns keep pouring in. I have a set of poems I “intended” to revise and perfect during my time there, but I also have these little treasures that allow me to return to a particular experience and feel that response to it again and again.
Sometimes people ask, “What good is it to go to a writers’ colony?” The evidence you see here is the answer. Time spent there is an investment that can never become lost or depreciated. Well after the stay is over, creativity continues to grow and flourish. Thinking back on the place and the emotional resonance of it gives the writer a small taste of peace, and often that taste is enough to open the channels of thought and innovation. Peace, after all, is a priceless and timeless gift.
When I was the age of my current students, I was busy finishing up the requirements for Eagle Scout. I genuinely enjoyed scouting, mostly because the things I learned there were hands-on, useful, and seemed to have real-life application. I enjoyed it so much, in fact, that one of my very first jobs was camp counselor, teaching younger boys how to safely and accurately shoot both rifles and shotguns. Scouting was good to me, and it gave me skills I use and teach even now when I take my sons camping, fishing, skeet shooting, hiking, or kayaking, among other activities.
Admittedly, the Boy Scouts of America is not what it used to be. Over the years, the organization has made a series of egregious missteps that have caused me not to place my sons in a troop, and I’ve largely cut all ties with the BSA. But this isn’t a political post, nor is it one intended to defend or prosecute “Scouting USA” as they now prefer to be called. Instead, I’d like to reflect upon how my present teaching experience embodies what was valuable within a former version of scouting: Practical guidance and retainable learning through meaningful relationships and memorable experiences.
I teach at an all-boys high school. Every day, I get to walk into my classroom and impart subject matter I love to young men who are eager to start the first chapters of their “real lives” beyond secondary education. Like tying a square knot or administering first aid, the skills I provide (reading a text more deeply, writing a clear sentence, etc.) are ones that will follow my pupils the rest of their lives if they’re wise enough to grasp this opportunity.
And I do all I can to ensure that my subject matter is imparted in a tangible, relatable way. We don’t just sit in rows and uniformly parrot back the rules of reading and writing; we investigate texts and tear sentences apart to see what makes them work (or not). I choose material that the boys will find engaging so as not to lose their focus. I show them that poetry, an oft-dreaded element of high school English, can be cool. They earn metaphorical “merit badges” in matters like fiction, nonfiction, composition, rhetoric, and critical analysis. And throughout all this, I lean into their experiences.
They write about their lives, their parents, their worries, and their friends. They give presentations about how they share traits with certain characters we’ve encountered. They read paragraphs with highlighters like navigators would read maps with compasses. And they build essays and compositions as a camper might carefully structure his log-cabin fire lay: each piece discerningly placed atop the other until the warmth and light reach optimal climax.
These boys remind me of a better chapter and give me hope for our cultural future. While all around us, young men give in to so many negative influences, I prefer to think that my small part in shaping my students will in some way brighten tomorrow through integrity and knowledge. I know that some of them will make bad choices just as certain scouts in my troop did. But if a small-town poet can reach into the minds of enough youth with lingering lessons about words and ideas, I will have succeeded. When my students enter the world beyond our campus, I know they will have heeded, even adopted, a certain old motto that remains in my heart: Be Prepared.
At the age of 46, Benjamin Franklin flew his famous kite, proving that lightning is an electrical discharge. Why does this matter? From my poet’s perspective, 46 seems relatively unimpressive — a sort of in-between age where people go along and get along until something better (or worse) happens. In other words, I’m pretty indifferent to turning 46 today, and I’m glad I stumbled upon the above historical fact to change my attitude.
If one of our founding fathers was still thinking, still pioneering, still researching at 46, then there’s no reason for me to slow down or “ride the year out” complacently. Even now, I have in mind a concept for my next collection of poems. The pieces I’ve written and had published lately reveal to me a common thread, and it is this common thread I intend to use as I begin to think about assembling the next book.
I am beginning research right now on a particular era in Florida history — one dominated by intriguing characters, wild landscapes, natural (and man-made) dangers, and a whole culture of its own, complete with songs, traditions, and superstitions. By the time I’m done, the poems driven by this other time and its people will be (I hope) truly original and extraordinary. I hesitate to say more since over-talking a project can often kill its spirit.
But I tell you, my readers, about this venture because on this birthday, I’m also requesting a small gift. I have set up a Patreon Page where anyone can donate to help fund the research for this important book. When you go there, you’ll learn more about the book itself, its purpose, and its potential. I sincerely hope you’ll pay a visit to the page and help make this new collection’s research possible. As many of you know, I am no longer employed by a university, which means securing research funding is up to me individually, and this is my small way of beginning that process.
Some people have said that giving through Patreon presents them with challenges, so here’s another possibility: If you read over the description of my new project there and want to give another way, you can use PayPal (@poetjohndavisjr) or Venmo (@John-Davis-1204). These other forms of donation will also be used toward my ongoing research through the Florida State Archives, the Lawton Chiles Center for Florida History, and other venues.
With luck and strong support, my 46th year can be my very best. I plan to use my charge of inspiration to produce my most relevant and best-written work yet. My kite is in the air and the key is attached. Let’s see what strikes.
My publisher is exemplary. Since publishing The Places That Hold with Eastover Press in December of last year, I’ve seen my work publicized, advertised, marketed, and recognized in ways no other book of mine has ever been. Some of this positive buzz is my doing as the author, but much of it is the direct result of the good people at the press itself. I’ve recommended that the editor and publicist do a conference talk on how small presses can keep their authors satisfied and their relationships productive. That’s how good they are.
All the above being said, I feel like I’m a little spoiled. I see authors whose work I admire and respect receiving little to no support. Fellow author “Chris” wrote a splendid collection of poems a while back and published it through a small independent press that runs an annual contest with a hefty submission fee. I think the book may have been their contest winner, in fact, though it’s hard to tell from the publisher’s near-secretive presentation of the book. Today, I looked for a copy of Chris’s collection at the “big boy” bookstores online, and they have no trace of it. I’ve seen no print ads for it, heard no talk of it, and, aside from a brief and subtle mention on the publisher’s website, there’s been no noticeable promotion of it via social media or other online sources. The tough part of this invisibility is, I know this author’s work to be truly worthwhile, and if his publisher had done just a little more, we’d all be talking about his poems right now. It’s a shame.
What else? It helps to have an editor whose work ethic is similar to your own. I grew up in a rural area known for farming, and I was taught early and often the value of honest labor. Someone who didn’t put their back into their work wasn’t much account, my grandparents believed, and even though the kind of work I do today is less muscular, I remain convinced that true diligence has value. Thankfully, my publisher’s people don’t see their press as some little throwaway sideline venture for an additional revenue stream. They pour their love into it, and that translates to giving it 100 percent. Their authors (like me) reap the rewards of their commitment and devotion to good literary business practices. I suspect certain rival presses are hoping to succeed on auto-pilot, as their business model has demonstrated a lax, even indifferent, attitude toward their products and producers.
At an after-reading get-together with several writer friends recently, I heard one say, “I do almost all of my own publicity and scheduling. [The publisher] just put my work into book form and hopes I’ll do the rest.” I remained silent. I didn’t want this person to feel bad, but it was hard not to brag on my publisher. And honestly, I think my friend’s experience has been similar to that of many indie authors today: Find some publisher who accepts your work, and then prepare to do all the legwork on your own just as though you self-published. Accept whatever terms appear in the contract because literary publishing is such a subjective and tough racket. Give up; conform to the expectation of being “the poor artist.” To be fair, this friend has done Zoom readings, library gigs with similar authors, and a range of other book-related activities, but he’s had to fight tooth-and-nail to get these opportunities. A professional publisher eases that struggle, and mine has done exactly that.
When I was submitting The Places That Hold to potential publishers, there were some well-meaning acquaintances who said, “Don’t you want to go for a big-name place this time? Haven’t you published enough with these small presses?” I was flattered by their faith in my poetry, but I also had a vision in mind that excluded Random House, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, or even W.W. Norton, a big publisher renowned for their support of poets.
There were also some who advised against a “newer” press, citing statistics that independent book publishers often fold within a year or two of opening (been there, done that, know better). Eastover Press was still fledgling at that time, and these admonishers of mine worried about its sustainability. What the pearl-clutchers didn’t realize was that I knew some of the faces behind the masthead. I knew they would approach my book and their others with tenacity, quality, care, and a spirit of earnest work. My decision has paid off.
In late July, The Places That Hold will receive another award. This time, the Florida Authors and Publishers Association will be giving it a medal (I’ll know the details at the actual awards ceremony). The book has already earned one medal at the Florida Book Awards. It has been featured on podcasts, websites, and in publications large and small. And the good news keeps rolling in.
Novices: When your book is ready, trust a publisher that sees the endeavor of literature the way you do. If your work is truly remarkable, the press you decide upon will give it wings or bury it. Choose wisely.
Experts tell us the GDP is great and unemployment is at an all-time low. Sounds wonderful, but let’s be honest: Average families like mine are struggling under the weight of exorbitant gas prices, record inflation, and severe stock market decline. The international conflict between Russia and Ukraine has impacted our dinner tables and our wallets, and the socioeconomic fallout from years of COVID has exacerbated the dilemma.
But this is not a political post, nor is it one that casts aspersions on any one political figure. The reasons for our current crisis are multi-faceted and intricately complex, requiring well-reasoned solutions from sharp minds. Should our leaders be doing more to fix our situation faster? Absolutely. The true heavy lifting in any notable society is done by the middle class, history shows us, and financially crippling this major swath of America is negligent, derelict, and cruel. Let readers place the blame where they will.
What is a poet to do under such monetary burdens? The same thing he always does: Write. That’s right — Money aside, I’m keeping at it. I am doing it, however, in a way that stretches dollars and makes cents (pardon the terrible dad-joke pun). What does this kind of penny-pinching “poeting” look like? Here’s a quick list:
1.) Hometown “residency:” Rather than taking a prestigious (see also: expensive) spot at some big-name writers workshop or conference, I’m writing nearby. My MFA alma mater is close to my home, and I’m able to use its spaces for submission work, writing, correspondence, and promotion. In previous blog posts, I’ve described a hometown residency model that leverages separate space apart from one’s home; this practice very much follows that same advice. I’ve minimized gas expenditure (visiting the university while my son is completing summer enrichment courses at his school in the vicinity), and I’ve become more intentional about the use of my time. I have a plan that accommodates inspiration.
2.) Using summer downtime wisely: Yes, I know — not everyone has the luxury of unoccupied summer days. I used to be one of those souls working year-round with less-than-occasional vacations, so stay with me. When I’m not doing family stuff, I’m seeing about the “business side” of writing. You know: Checking Submittable repeatedly, scoping out new markets via Duotrope, sending out applications for various awards or programs, and generally seeing about writing-related tasks apart from the writing itself, which requires serious time and deeper thought.
3.) Seeking fellowships, grants, and endowments: I’ve been fortunate. Over the years, I’ve attracted a happy little following to my work, and some of these people are quite generous. Recently, a benevolent donor funded a week’s stay at Rockvale Writers’ Colony in Tennessee, where I’ll be headed in late July to begin work on my latest project. I’m also asking supporters to fund research for my upcoming work via my Patreon page. This next book will be a powerful statement, and I’m hopeful a kind few supporters will provide the means for me to do intensive research at the Florida State Archives in Tallahassee. See Patreon for more details. But the big picture is just this — art takes financial support, and finding that support is doable with diligence.
So, there you have it — Three things that an artist (even a word-artist) does when things get tight. This period of sparsity will pass like others have, but in the meantime, there’s work to be done. As the old song says, lift that barge, tote that bale. Sooner or later, it’s bound to pay off.
Sometimes people ask me, ”Why don’t you write fiction or nonfiction?” My answer to them is, ”I do; it’s just not my first love or my calling.” I sometimes begin with prose before arriving at a poem. Today was one of those days. Sitting on my back porch with a yellow legal pad in my lap and a cup of coffee nearby, I began writing something, anything, to prime the mental pump. Gym-goers, consider this like the cardio before the weight training. As I cursived out a few initial throw-away words, the garbage truck pulled up out front, its brakes emitting that high, industrial screech that precedes a brief stop. This quick encounter prompted the following to appear on my notepad:
The sound of our neighborhood garbage truck takes me back to Fort Meade, circa 1986, when garbagemen (yes, that’s what we called them) would leap from the backs of slow-moving, dirty white trucks and, with Herculean muscle, lift and empty our large metal trash cans into the waiting, hungry mouth of the compactor in the truck’s rear. The work was filthy and stinky, and the men who did it went home every night smelling of other people’s refuse. But the men who did it grew strong and made a decent enough living to send kids off to college so they’d never have to become “sanitation workers.”
Today, the truck extends a mighty mechanical gripper. The machine lifts, empties, and returns the dumpster, which is lifeless gray plastic. There is no poetry in this process. No clang of cans, no yelling among workers. No Clyde, no Cecil [whose names we knew because they were embroidered onto gray-blue name-strips above their breast pocket, sometimes ripped]. No quick wave before the resumption of a route. Just an ugly claw taking waste, leaving vacancy.
Ironic, I suppose, that I openly stated the lack of poetry in modern rubbish collection. Had it not been for the shiny blue truck’s arrival and the sensations that went with it, my recollection would not have been triggered. I know that Cecil and Clyde (conveniently two C names) will probably make an appearance in a future poem. I know that those noises and memories will probably appear in that poem, as well. And I know that right now, I must allow those images and ideas to rest a while before they become something else. I’ll stash away this yellow piece of paper, and some morning at 4 a.m., much to my family’s chagrin, I will revisit this small vignette, and it will take on new life in my chosen genre.
This is what a life in literature sometimes looks like: not the gleam of an award or the bustle of a book-signing, but the simplicity of a legal pad, a ballpoint pen, and a cup of coffee. A view of a pond, a quick sensory stimulation, and a ready place to process all those thoughts that arrive. This is what I write when I don’t write poems.
I’m social media “friends” with many people I knew during my secondary school career. It’s interesting to see who has gotten married, moved away, had kids, or recently switched careers, among other things. Some folks make you think, “Yes, that sounds about right for so-and-so,” and others surprise you: “Really? I never thought (name here) would ever (insert seemingly strange life event here).”
Every once in a while, though, a name pops up in my feed and I think, “Now why aren’t they writing more?” After all, I went to school with a great number of people who were stellar writers at the middle school and high school level — far better than I was, definitely. They had a strong sense of language’s musicality, wrote with a unique personal diction, and went well beyond any of the formulaic writing advice handed out by teachers at that time.
I think of “Rosa,” a Wauchula Hills girl Mr. Pace praised for her innovative compositions in eighth grade. I think of “Ralph” and “Jorge,” both of whom dominated English class but who could equally demystify math and science, a feat my right-hemisphere-heavy brain could never perform. These students and others were cheered for their writing prowess in both the creative and academic genres, but today, they’ve abandoned the art altogether. Adulthood and all its myriad obligations appear to have stifled the authorial impulse for these classmates, and I want to implore them, “Go buy a legal pad and scribble down the first things that come to mind! We need more writers like you!”
Admittedly, the affairs of their lives are not mine to judge, no matter how well-intended my wishes for them may be. It could be that some of them gave writing a try only to find that it is fickle: Some days are diamonds, some days are stones, to quote the late John Denver. Maybe one or two started a blog like this one and discovered that it doesn’t pay the bills, so why bother? Truthfully, there is much I just don’t know, but I suspect that the lack of immediate reward could have been a turn-off. Some people labor at the inkwell/keyboard all their lives and never see any impact, yet posthumously, their words are cherished (think Emily Dickinson and Edgar Allan Poe for starters). Why persist under circumstances like that?
I still write because of both encouragement and endurance. Plenty of people in my life motivated me along the way, and I’ve come to understand that doing a thing for a long time has its rewards, both intrinsic and extrinsic. This year marks my twenty-fifth as a “real” poet — someone who has gone beyond dabbling with clever rhymes and poured time, resources, and significant work and research into the craft. There are plenty of much younger people who have achieved literary fame (and even fortune) from their words at ages far lower than mine. But I genuinely don’t perceive writing as a competition, and because I don’t, I just keep going at my own pace, on my own terms. I take heart from poets like Billy Collins and Ruth Stone, both remarkable writers who weren’t “discovered” until about age 60. Things turn out okay for scribes who keep at it, and even if I’m never discovered in the same way they were, I will have compiled a considerable body of work for my family to remember me by, for better or worse.
Writerly classmates of old Hardee High, please pick up a pen. I promise that your words will make it worthwhile. Even on the hard days, even on the dry-well days, even on the apathetic days, having written anything at all still feels good. Do it because it’s therapy. Do it because it leaves a legacy. Do it because you have a talent to either use or lose. I look forward to seeing your latest work soon. Until then, happy scribbling.
Item number three: I recently learned that The Places That Hold has won a bronze medal in the Florida Book Awards. For those outside the lovely Sunshine State, this is kind of a big deal here. Scholars, university faculty members, and respected authors are on the decision-making panel for the Florida Book Awards, and typically the works that are chosen represent voices that are more established. My good friend and mentor Erica Dawson received a gold medal in the Florida Book Awards a couple years ago for her book, When Rap Spoke Straight to God (Tin House Books). To be in the company of such fine voices is honestly humbling.
So yes, things are going well here. The launch of the book at Firehouse Cultural Center in Ruskin was a success (even amid high COVID rates and bad weather), spring break is a mere three weeks away, and another fair season is in full swing. As the Ferris wheel spins its nightly neon colors over in Tampa amid the noise and oily-delicious smells of the midway, I’m reminded that everything is cyclical — there are highs and lows, lights and darkness. I’m grateful to be in a higher, lighter time.
If you haven’t yet purchased a copy of The Places That Hold, let me recommend the best possible site to get one: https://www.indiebound.org/book/9781934894682 (This site will connect you to your local independent bookstore, who needs your business now more than ever — Don’t get me wrong, I use the “big boys” too, but let’s help out our smaller merchants). Thank you for supporting poetry!
John Davis Jr.’s newest poetry collection published by Eastover Press. Small-town life, rural truths, and poems of captivity interweave themselves in this volume.
For all those who’ve eagerly asked to be notified when the new book is available, I have special news: Tuesday is the official release day! In preparation for this major event, I’m offering my preorder folks a unique bargain — order today (before the release) and you’ll have a signed copy made out to you. I’ll ship it to you (shipping included in price above) along with a personal card of thanks as soon as I receive my author’s copies. As the holiday season arrives, please help me celebrate this new collection with your support. Just click the “Pay with PayPal” button above. Thanks in advance!